UA 188 Newark to Johannesburg in business class

September 1, 2021

On July 29 I was scheduled to fly on United Airlines from Raleigh (RDU) to Newark (EWR) to connect to United’s nonstop Newark-Johannesburg flight that night.  I wrote about United abruptly canceling the RDU/EWR segment at 2:00 AM with no alternative, which led to an all-day ordeal of misery to get to Newark in time for my flight to South Africa.  That story was posted on my old blog site (Allen on Travel) and on this site (Will Allen on Travel).  No thanks to United, I made the connection.  Finally now I am writing about the international segment to Jo’burg, a much more pleasant experience despite being an hour late and with service hamstrung by Covid restrictions.

United assigns new 787-9 aircraft for the U.S-South Africa 15-16 hour flights, configured up front with the newest generation of seats.  UA calls it Polaris Class.  Here are my real-time notes from the flight, which inexplicably boarded late and left late:

UA188 pushed back from the gate at EWR at 2144 (944p), 59 minutes late (scheduled departure was 2045).  No announcement of courtesy explaining why either by the gate staff or pilot once on board.

Off ground quickly at 2208 (1008p), no doubt an expedited taxi-to-takeoff due to the need to conserve fuel for the 8,003 miles to Johannesburg. 

My bulkhead seat 1L on the starboard side of the new Polaris cabin shows the tightly-configured, layered arrangement, about which more later.

The computer flight map says ETA JNB (Johannesburg) 1825, 40 mins late. That number kept creeping later until it was 1849 (649p), over an hour late, making a liar out of the captain who said tailwinds would help us arrive at a half hour late at 615pm local time in Johannesburg.

Constant turbulence for nearly an hour over the Atlantic due to severe thunderstorms arriving over New York. Tornadoes were forecast for Newark just before we departed. No service at all then, of course, not even a bottle of water. 

Then, abruptly, an hour and 25 minutes into the flight, the purser showed up with a hot tray dinner:

Prime rib and gravy (superb! delicious!) with carrots and broccoli and rice (all shockingly flavorful) served with a salad (fresh and tasty) and ended with small (really small) container of mango sorbet (scrumptious!). Poor presentation, but good food. Well, except for the stale prison farm roll.

Accompanied by Ayala French Champagne (never heard of it, though Joe Brancatelli vouched for it) that had a tangy but not great “dosage” with too much Cognac for my taste, but the bubbly was French and served properly chilled. I had four tiny, ugly plastic glasses of the stuff as I was desperate to relax and to feel I hadn’t totally wasted my money. Pre-Covid crystal glasses, or just regular glassware, now a fading memory. Sad. 

By then it was nearly midnight my time, and I was relaxed for the first time since I learned at 700am that morning that United had canceled my flight Raleigh to Newark. The first real food and drink I’ve had today (two 16 oz. bottles of water) certainly helped. 

Seat 1L is starboard bulkhead and thus near the forward galley. All row 1 seats are more spacious than every other row, which, as I said before, are configured zig-zag to maximize the seat capacity.

Seats are arranged 1-2-1 across the Polaris business class cabin (compared to 2-3-2 in Premium Economy and 3-3-3 in coach), so lots of privacy. The odd-numbered rows on the hull have two windows each and are more distant from the aisles; even-numbered rows are close to the aisles with just one window. The privacy, extra space, and two windows are why I selected 1L.

An annoying discovery was that the United headsets provided on this 787 have unique plugs with one larger than the other. Making the plug on my Bose noise-canceling headphones incompatible. My Bose phones are far superior in comfort and noise reduction, but were rendered useless without a special adapter plug, which I didn’t know I needed until we were in the air. 

Nonetheless, I enjoyed two movies using the pathetic United headphones after getting the purser to write up the issue (she agreed most business class customers bring their own Bose phones).

I always enjoy following the computer map of our progress.

Eventually, I fell asleep for about 4 hours after adjusting the seat to the lie-flat position and using eyeshades and earplugs. I found it was hard to breathe wearing both a mask and eyeshades until I discreetly pulled my mask down over the tip of my nose. Flight attendants either didn’t notice or didn’t squawk about my sleepy-time mask transgression, and I rested well. 

Trying to adjust to the six hour time change (this time of year), I made myself frequently get up and walk up and down the cabin after my nap, stopping in the galley area to stretch for 10-15 minutes at the time. It’ll be time to go to bed again once we clear immigration and make the short walk to the City Lodge hotel across the airport parking deck, and I know from experience that it’s better to be tired when I reach my room in order to sleep through the night. 

Or at least most of the night.  I’m always jazzed to be back in Africa! 

Now just two hours to go to Johannesburg, we are overflying Namibia after crossing the SE corner of Angola. Then over the Kalahari Desert of Botswana before reaching South African airspace and making our descent. Breakfast is about to be served (although it’ll be late afternoon when we arrive in Jo’burg).

I spent a couple of hours chatting with various flight attendants and came away with a more charitable view of United. They’re doing the best they can under trying circumstances (Covid-related austerity and precautions).

Bottom line is that after an extremely poor start, United folks on this flight have partially redeemed my view of the airline. I can’t forget, too, that my extremely low business class fare $1600 round trip) was less than Delta’s premium economy fare ($1800)—a great bargain, in fact.  Just the same, I’ll be very glad not to deal with United Airlines again until I have to fly home in 8 days.

  • End of real-time in-flight notes.

 My day-to-day experiences getting to and from, and, most importantly, being in, the Kruger National Park are posted on my Allen on Africa blog at https://allenonafrica.wordpress.com/.

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